Smart Sex Toys Bug Me: the unethical tactics of sex trackers

Sex in America is traditionally one of the most understudied areas of human life in all the sciences and social sciences. It’s always a huge deal for sex writers and readers when the CDC or the Kinsey Institute come out with new data because their studies are crammed with fascinating information about real-life sex.

The things we don’t know about sex still exceed the things we do.


The study of sex has always been the black sheep of the sciences, not to mention every conservative’s favorite whipping boy. Sex studies don’t get much federal support or funding, sex educators lose their jobs if they don’t toe the binary hetero-normative line or try to present facts in high schools instead of anti-sex propaganda, and most sex researchers scrabble and privately fund studies out of their own pockets. So we sex-data devourers live for large-scale studies and are grateful for every lick of biological data we can get on human sexual behavior. It’s through new data, and especially medical/hard science data, that we can strip away half-truths and derive deeply personal information that people may not admit or, more often, even know about themselves. Medical studies, for example, provide invaluable insights into sexual function. Still, the things we don’t know about sex exceed the things we do.


“Everyone lies about their sex life.”


The problems of gathering reliable data, unfortunately, are daunting when it comes to soft sciences like psychology, sociology and sexology. Soft science researchers depend on the answers you give them, according to your own understanding of what sex is. When I was working on a demographic survey (self-reported by participants) for my doctorate, I asked my Ph.D. mentor what pitfalls to look out for. He told me something I’ll never forget. “Accept the fact that everyone lies about their sex life.”

And, while there are more than a few of us BDSM/poly/LGBT types who gave up lying years ago, it is true that when you ask people directly about their sex lives, they often fudge things, make themselves look better, or otherwise give answers that warp their true reality. Most people don’t really want to admit how often (or how seldom) they jerk off, for example. Or how unhappy they are with their current sex lives. Or they bury their lesbian college adventure under the mantle of hetero respectability they now wear.

It’s not because they deliberately set out to lie. I was recently wading through data from a massive National Institutes of Health study of sexual behavior and what really stuck out was how many more people reported same-sex encounters than admitted to being bisexual. I guess they reasoned that though they act bisexual they don’t feel they are bisexual and they assess their sexual identity according to how they feel about it and not what they actually DO. The anal sex numbers were utterly mystifying, since they didn’t ask about who was pitching and who was receiving.


“Don’t trust self-reporting on homosexuality or bisexuality”


Looking at the totality of the NIH data, I had to wonder just where the truth was. There were even small percentages of participants who reported they didn’t understand the differences between gay or straight or know how to label themselves. I can’t know if that was because they were too ashamed to admit it even to themselves, whether they were sophisticates of the “don’t label me, you fucker” mindset who feel they’ve evolved beyond labels, or they actually did not know what makes a person gay or queer.

I don’t trust self-reporting on homosexuality or bisexuality for three key reasons.

  1.  Sex researchers wedded to heterosexual paradigms (which is most of them, at least until recently) never asked the right questions. Asking someone to self-ID as gay is very different from simply asking if they ever had experiences involving same-sex participants as children, teens, or in adulthood. I knew someone who described a three-way to me, where one person was primarily a voyeur but still deeply engaged with the guy fucking his wife. This person was shocked (SHOCKED, I tell you!) when I asked if he considered himself bi or poly. After all, the two men didn’t fuck. They just used a woman together. Because the mere idea of homosexuality violated his religious philosophies, he had framed it as a hetero cuckolding encounter. OK, but I see cuckoldry as a bisexual phenomenon. If a man is watching you fuck his partner, he is having sex with you both, and getting off on watching your dick going into the other person’s orifices and your ass going up and down. Cool. Fine. Yeah. Still, that’s what makes it bi, not straight. Hardcore hets usually don’t want other same-sex genitals in the room during sex.
  2. People don’t see themselves as labels. They see themselves as people who sometimes get into pretty wild sexual situations. And most of them consider themselves lucky when they do, too! But they don’t want to put a label on it. They think labels are wrong. Maybe they are. I find them clinically useful, but I get it.
  3.  Most people who have same-sex experiences never tell anyone and basically “pick a side” (the straight one is usually their first choice, even when it makes them miserable) and stick to it. Sometimes they know in their hearts they are gay but are so petrified of their own nature that they take their secret to the grave. Sometimes a gay person is literally the last person who realizes he or she is gay, even though family, friends and the world at large understand they are at least a little queer. So, given the hostility against LGBT relations, cultural prejudices against LGBTQ-I people, the anti-LGBT rhetoric that spews from organized religious groups, and so on, shame holds millions of people back from accurately reporting their genuine orientations.

And that’s how a lot of people end up lying and skewing soft science data to the detriment of all. That’s why I always look for a scientific study or large-scale studies, the bigger the better. A trend in 5000 people is way more reliable than a self-reported survey of 20 people. If there’s hard-science attached even better. I built my whole theory of masturbation as a fundamental building block of human sexuality drawing from awesome studies by cardiologists, endocrinologists, urologists, gynecologists and neuroscientists. Knitting their hard data together with clinical observations and soft-science studies, I could come up with an irrefutable set of theories about the importance of masturbation and orgasm to human health. Thank you, medical science, I love you!

“Smart sex toys are changing the world of sex data”


Now enters into a vast cultural clusterfuck of underfunded sex study, the scarcity of reliable data, and anti-sex polemic right and left, this latest and greatest concept from corporate entrepreneurs: the smart sex toy. These nifty little devices allow consumers to track every private detail of their performance, sexual habits and appetites. Smart sex toys are changing the world of sex data by allowing consumers to set them up to track every little detail of their genital performance, level of libido, and more esoteric facts we’ve never been able to learn from even the most astute Kinsey Institute study. The data they can collect are even better to a straightforward understanding of the mechanics of sex than the science showing how sex is related to heart health and or how it is effected by the endocrine system.

I want to love the new toys, I really do. So nifty, so cute, so useful. For example, the new i-Con Smart Condom literally tracks male sexual fitness, measuring how many calories you burn, how fast you move your hips, how big your penis gets and even what positions you take during sex. Like WOW! What sex researcher wouldn’t want to see those results and get to learn more about the beautiful mysteries of male orgasms? Even better — if it knows your position, it also will know if you’re giving or getting anal sex. Yeah! I would love to know how many men enjoy anal penetration.

But I don’t love the smart toys I kind of hate them because of the privacy and corporate ethics issues. The people who are aggregating that data, i.e., the companies who make or sell them, won’t be sharing it back. That information goes straight back to a corporation who then uses the info to build marketing data on you so, at some future point, they can sell you more product. They are not donating it to the CDC or Kinsey. The smart condom people are smartly keeping it all to themselves. Sure, you may choose not to share your penis size with social media, but the manufacturer will know everything — maybe even more than you think (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). The company piously announced that the data “will be kept anonymous.” You know, like every other market research study. Unlike ethical market researchers, though, these geniuses are getting it out of you for free. They aren’t paying you for being their marketing guinea pigs. You can’t opt out. They are just keeping your dicktistics to themselves for corporate reasons. And, anonymous or not, that little gold mine of data could well be recycled or sold in ways you didn’t consent to either.

It burns. The world needs this kind of useful, enlightening data on sex. We don’t need more slimy companies betraying our privacy. Which brings me to another question: who exactly will be looking at your data? Will it be geeks snickering over the “anonymous” smallest-dicked guy or sharing in-office xeroxes of really strange habits?

I call bullshit on non-consensual research gathering. And so did millions of women who joined a class-action suit against We-Vibe, the people who paired vibrators with smart-phones and similarly gathered information on women’s sexual habits and body responses. Most of the women who bought the device (including many who love all the stuff it can track, because, hey, that’s fun!) weren’t aware that their pussies were actually being used by the Man. This week, We-Vibe reached a nearly $4 million dollar settlement with the plaintiffs over privacy violations related to programming their toys to tell them what consumer vaginas do. I can’t think of any reason, not even the narcissistic satisfaction of scientifically knowing how much I secrete when I cum, why I’d let my pussy work for a company whose unique goal is to gather that research and share it with R&D and Sales to figure out how to lure me to buy more toys from them.

Want your consumers to love you and support you by buying more gadgets? BE ETHICAL! BE GOOD!

We could, of course, have our trackers and our fun without feeling raped by corporate shills. Sex toy manufacturers could actually provide an amazing humanitarian service to our sad old world. Here’s how in just TWO small steps.

  1.  Make it clear the info is being gathered and right up-front allow consumers to opt-out.
  2. Share the information with a reputable sexual health organization who knows how to put that data to GOOD USE, like helping people avoid STDS, improve attitudes toward sexual health, and otherwise educate and enlighten the greater world about how sex is lived.

Want your consumers to love you and support you by buying more gadgets? BE ETHICAL! BE GOOD! If all smart sex toys were wired to improve the global understanding of sex, if they donated a portion of their results or profits to researchers and sex educators, I’d be throwing money at them. I would embrace a new scientific opportunity to put sex facts to good use. But until they do, I’ll be damned if I’m letting a bunch of clueless business pimps make my vagina feed their corporate greed.